This is a piece I originally posted on February 7, 2000…
For the last two weeks, I’d been having a problem with my left ear. Something in there was bothering me, but I couldn’t figure out what it was.
You know that water-in-your-ear feeling you get when you’ve been swimming? This felt a little bit like that, or maybe like something new was growing in there. Perhaps my ear canal had decided on its own to grow a new protective membrane.
It certainly wasn’t a case of waxy yellow buildup, but whatever it was, it bothered me whenever I chewed or yawned. All I was sure of was one simple anatomical fact: you can’t inspect the inside of your own ear. I don’t care how many mirrors you use, it’s just impossible. Even contortionists using a system of weights and pulleys can’t do it. So, a visit to the doctor was mandated.
When I called to make the appointment, the receptionist asked what the problem was. I explained, and she told me that my regular doctor couldn’t see me until next week, but another doctor in the practice could take me that afternoon. Fine.
Upon arrival, I was led by a nurse into an examination room, where the first thing she did was ask me what the problem was. I gave her my gripe as she took my blood pressure, pulse, and temperature. Then she left, claiming that the doctor would be right in.
Fifteen minutes later (the medical definition of “be right in,” apparently), the doctor entered. She introduced herself and asked what the problem was. That made three people in the same office on the same day who had asked me what the problem was. Doesn’t anyone here write anything down?
I filled her in on my symptoms, and she got out that little device that only doctors have — the ear telescope with light attachment — to take a look. As she was looking, I told her about my new membrane theory, to which her reply was a noncommittal, “Hmmm.” That’s the kind of thing a doctor says right before telling you they’ve discovered the egg of an alien being that’s about to hatch inside your head.
Upon further inspection, she told me that it looked like a little piece of hair in there. Then she told me the good news: “I have no idea how to get it out.”
It was at this precise instant that I realized who this doctor reminded me of: that nitwit character Lucy that Kellie Martin played on “ER” — the one who always had to get a real doctor to help her because she couldn’t diagnose anything.
“Looks like a broken arm to me, but let me ask Dr. Greene.”
“No, Lucy, it’s not a broken arm. This woman is pregnant!”
Right on cue, my doctor announced that she was going to get her supervisor. Great, another person who can ask me what the problem is!
I sat there reflecting on how ironic it is that the amount of hair on my head is decreasing while the amount of hair in my ear is increasing. Five minutes later, Dr. Supervisor came in and asked me what the problem was. With a sigh, I explained again. He took a peek through the ear-scope and announced that it was in fact a hair in there (way to go, Lucy!).
He explained that they could probably irrigate it out, unless this was a new hair that had just sprouted and was growing in my ear canal — something that apparently happens to some men in their forties. If that was the case, then they’d have to call in an Ear Nose & Throat specialist (hey, someone else who can ask me what the problem is!), who might have to solve the problem by doing a procedure.
Procedure. That’s a wonderful term out of the medical lexicon, isn’t it? “Doing a procedure” is doctor talk for “cutting you open.” There’s no such thing as a procedure that involves spreading on a salve and then wiping it off. Gotta have a scalpel, or it’s not a procedure. Suddenly, that whole growing-a-new-membrane thing sounded like a nice alternative.
My brother-in-law has had a few procedures done in his time and tells me about his favorite moment of medical bedside manners. As the nurse or doctor is about to insert the IV needle in his arm, they try to distract him by asking, “So, what do you do for a living?” He always answers, “I’ll tell you after you put that in.” Only when they have done it correctly, with full concentration, does he reveal that he is an attorney. When they ask what kind of attorney he is, he replies, “A good one.”
So, the two doctors left and five more minutes passed before yet another nurse arrived and — shock! — did not ask me what the problem was. The message had obviously been passed along, because she was carrying two plastic trays and a metal object that looked like she was about to decorate a cake with icing in some industrial kitchen.
I quickly realized that she was going to fill this thing, which looked big enough to rinse out the inside of a cow, and shove it in my ear. How much water does it take to irrigate an ear? Suffice it to say that she covered my shoulder and arm with a towel, and had me hold one of the plastic trays in place, too.
Before I knew it, she inserted this hypodermic-on-steroids about two microns away from my ear drum, and pushed the plunger. The whooshing which followed immediately qualified as The Loudest Noise I’ve Ever Heard — and I’ve seen The Who in concert. Forget about the sound of the ocean from a sea shell. Imagine putting your ear directly under Niagara Falls. Then multiply by ten.
She did this for a second, then paused, then squirted again. Sensing that she may have missed a dry spot on my spleen, she squirted yet again. Finally, she proclaimed, “There it is!”
I looked in the tray and saw a hair that was maybe three-eighths of an inch long. I don’t know how it got in my ear, but I sure was glad it was out.
She asked, “Better?” I replied, “Huh?” Remember that pool-water-in-the-ear feeling? Now I had it for real, but it popped soon enough and I happily reported that everything seemed back to normal. The nurse brought Dr. Lucy back in, just long enough to give me my bill.
On the page under Description of Care, she had put a check mark next to “Impacted Cerumen Removal.” I looked it up — cerumen is a technical term for earwax. That wasn’t the problem, but I guess that’s the code that gets my insurance company to pay for it. Fine with me. At least I didn’t have to undergo a procedure.
In the space for Diagnosis, she had handwritten these words: “foreign body in ear.” Finally, someone had marked down what my problem was!